New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson created a stir in October when, campaigning for president in water-hungry Las Vegas, he called for a national water policy and remarked that states like Wisconsin were "awash in water."
No one has seriously proposed that parched western states sip from the Midwest. And Mr. Richardson's office swiftly declared he had no such intention. But his remark tapped a growing sensitivity here over the Great Lakes and has given new urgency to a regional initiative to protect them from outsiders.
Several recent trends have heightened the concern of those in the Great Lakes Basin: Lake levels fell to near record lows last year, drought struck the Southeast, and climate-change studies have cast new uncertainty over water supplies in the Great Lakes region. Meanwhile, population shifts are slowly draining the region of its political power. Great Lakes states lost congressional seats after the 2000 census and expect to lose more after 2010.
"Population growth is occurring most rapidly in water-poor areas of the Southwest and Southeast in the United States," says David Naftzger, executive director of the Council of Great Lakes Governors. "Because of growth trends there, we want to have long-term protections in place."
Federal law requires consent of the governors of all the Great Lakes states before any water can be diverted outside the basin. Diversions have been permitted in only a few cases for communities at the edge of the basin. But lawyers and water experts say the federal law offers only weak protection and is too vague to stand up in court against potential suits from communities wanting water.
Two years ago, governors of the eight Great Lakes states and two Canadian provinces signed a compact to ban diversions from the Great Lakes Basin and to impose stricter regulation on water use within the basin. Despite broad support, the compact has proven controversial in its details. In Ohio, opponents have argued that the compact infringes on local property rights. In Wisconsin, some people have objected to a provision that allows any state to veto diversions to communities at the edge of the basin. The ban would allow exceptions for communities near the edge of the basin.
The agreement still needs ratification by the legislatures of six of the eight states and approval by Congress before it goes into effect.
Because the Great Lakes contain 18 percent of all the available fresh surface water on the planet, small cities like Waukesha see Great Lakes water as a solution, even though they lie partly or wholly outside the basin.
Though this isn't the first time the Great Lakes have been eyed, most plans have gone nowhere. One notable exception is a US Supreme Court ruling that allows Chicago to draw up to 2.1 billion gallons of water a day from the lake – enough to supply suburbs outside the basin.
Last year Waukesha started a conservation program that restricts outdoor watering, imposes rates that discourage consumption, and includes a "water conservation challenge" with prizes underwritten by local businesses.
"My goal is for Waukesha to be ... a good example of what could happen under the compact," says the city's mayor, Larry Nelson.
Environmentalists are unsympathetic. "Waukesha knew it was going to have a water-supply problem a long time ago but waited till the last minute before getting smart about water consumption," says Cameron Davis, president of the Chicago-based Alliance for the Great Lakes, an environmental group.
Advocates of the compact say such controversies foreshadow what's ahead if the Great Lakes compact isn't ratified soon.